Devika Bhagat: Telling Character Stories

Interview with Devika Bhagat, on writing for films and her experience as one of the few women screenplay writers in India.

Interview with Devika Bhagat, on writing for films and her experience as one of the few women screenplay writers in India. 

By Amrita Rajan

You may not be familiar with her name but you’re definitely acquainted with Devika Bhagat’s work in India’s film industry. She co-wrote the critically acclaimed Manorama Six Feet Under starring indie darling Abhay Deol as well as the script for the Ranbir Kapoor starrer Bachna Ae Haseeno, remarkable for Bipasha Basu’s most honest work till date.

She’s also the creative force behind Sony’s Mahi Way, an unusually enjoyable Indian television series that just concluded its first season, about one young woman’s struggle to find herself beyond her dress size.

Amrita Rajan (AR): How did you become a  screenplay writer for Hindi movies and television?

Devika Bhagat (DB): After I graduated from Tisch, NYU with a BFA in Film and TV and moved back to India, my plan was work my way up as an Assistant Director till when I could pitch my own script and become a director. But after 3 stints as an AD, I started getting creatively stagnated as being an AD is basically logistical and production work.

I never once thought I could be a ‘writer for hire’. It takes a different skill to write for other people because you have to cater to their vision and sensibilities. But then an accident happened. I wrote a script while waiting for an AD job to come along and Imtiaz Ali, whom I had gotten to know through a common friend, read it.

The script was trash but Imtiaz saw potential in me as a screenplay writer. He offered me his next project. I think his confidence in my writing skills is what pushed me to accept it.

Unfortunately, that project didn’t go beyond the development stage but I enjoyed the process so much that it gave me confidence to call myself a screenwriter. Then I met Navdeep Singh, started working on Manorama Six Feet Under with him and the rest followed.

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AR: You’ve worked across an eclectic bunch of genres – from Manorama Six Feet Under to Bachna Ae Haseeno and the upcoming Aisha. As a screenplay writer, who or what influences your writing the most? 

DB: To me, the genre is incidental. It’s the story and the characters that guide me. It’s important to listen to the story because it will tell you how it needs to be told. What I am most interested in is telling Character stories. I need my characters and their world to guide me. I really don’t want to categorise anything as mainstream or off beat. Of course the budget of the project does guide what one can include in a screenplay but that is mostly to do with the production values involved. If I can see it…I will write it.

What I am most interested in is telling Character stories. I need my characters and their world to guide me.

AR: The TV series you write, Mahi Way, is a stunning departure from the shows on Indian TV today. One thing that intrigues me about it is the number of women calling the shots – from the director to the screenplay writer. Was this by design or accident? What’s the (almost) all-female experience like? 

DB:I really don’t know if the number of women calling the shots was by design or by accident. But having a female creative producer (Ravina Kohli) and director (Nupur Asthana) was brilliant because both understood exactly what Mahi Way was about; how personal it was to me because of my overweight past…yet could be the story of so many, overweight or not.

In fact, of all the scripts I have written, Mahi Way has come the closest to how I imagined it and this is without me ever being in any creative discussion with the director and the crew, meeting any of the cast and just going on set once – on the last day, for fun! She just knew…and partly it was because she was a woman and partly because she is a brilliant director!

AR: One of the things that’s always struck me as difficult about the screenwriting process is the amount of creative control you have to give up. Has there ever been a script change that you bitterly resented or, conversely, thought made the whole thing better?

DB: A screenplay writer has to fulfill the vision of the producer or the director. My job is to make it work whether it’s my concept or theirs. Being a screenwriter one has one’s own creative sensibilities but there is also the director and/or producer and the invisible audience out there. One has to find that delicate balance and at the end of the day what’s important is the script.

Of course sometimes there are creative quarrels during script meetings but never have I been bitter about any change. If I ever do, I’ll walk out of the project.

Script writing is an evolving process and it comes down to this – Can I make that change work? Can I give the director a script he or she can direct? Sometimes, of course, there are changes made for the sake of satisfying an ego…but one has to be mature about it and I try!

AR: How much does the actual casting of your movies correspond with how you imagine your characters when you’re writing? 

DB: I have never written a screenplay keeping specific actors in mind. That would box the characters. (Once for a film that shall remain unnamed, the producer mentioned John Abraham’s name during the scripting stage for the male lead and after that whenever I would write the character’s scene, I would imagine him shirtless – not good!)

As far as the actual casting goes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s how I imagined the characters. It’s how the actor will finally represent the character. The character has no life on paper. It’s the actor along with the director that gives it life and sometimes the unlikeliest actors fit characters because ultimately they are the ones portraying it. During the selection process, producers and directors do ask for my suggestions but ultimately the call is theirs. During the workshop phase, as the actor tries to fit the character, sometimes changes are made to the character to fit the actor.

AR: Any specific example? 

DB: The only significant change was made in Manorama Six Feet Under. The main protagonist Satyaveer, was meant to be a down and out 45 year old. But once Abhay Deol was cast, the age of the character was brought down to 30 and therefore changes had to be made to the script to fit a 30 year old in terms of the character’s cynicism and excess baggage!

According to me, it was a change for the better. A 30 year old protagonist meant he could have the naivete and the curiosity the story demanded of him.

AR: What kind of movies and TV shows do you like to watch? 

DB: During film school of course I was introduced to world cinema at large, but if you were to pinpoint anything – it would be Wong Kar Wai (at one point in my life I was convinced I was dreaming in only red and green) and the Coen Brothers. I also love the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Jason Reitman, Cameron Crowe. The pattern is evident – character driven films.

In terms of TV shows, most recently – House, Entourage, Modern Family, Glee, How I Met Your Mother and my guilty pleasure is Gossip Girl!

AR: Is there a story that you’ve always wanted to write but just know will never be made in India’s film industry?

DB: Yes, I have a story. And I have pitched it to three producers. So far…no takers. It’s a bit too dark for them. Can’t tell you exactly what it is but it does have to do with a woman on the edge!

But I’m still hoping. I’ll give it about 5 years…

I don’t write for an audience per se. I write about what I know or have experienced/seen. I cannot write about a world I don’t know anything of. That would be false.

AR: One of the biggest criticisms directed at Hindi cinema today is that it’s too urban and has “forgotten” the B-centers that drove the Bollywood of old. Do you think that’s true? What kind of audience do you write for?

DB: I really cannot comment on the film industry at large. I can only talk about myself. I don’t write for an audience per se. I write about what I know or have experienced/seen. I cannot write about a world I don’t know anything of. That would be false. And as far as films being too urban, Manorama was set in a small town and yet it was a niche film…because perhaps B-centers don’t want reality either? If I start catering to an audience rather than follow my writing instinct…it would just be a huge mess.

AR: What has been your best working experience till date?

DB: My best working experience till date was writing Mahi Way, because it was the closest thing to my personal experiences having been a fat teenager. Those nine months in 2007-2008 during which I wrote those 25 episodes were the most creatively fulfilling to me. I could write anything, go as mad and my creative Producer at YRF – Ravina Kohli, would encourage me even more. She is truly heaven sent for writers.

AR: Okay, one last thing unrelated to anything but a million fantasies – Matt Damon. As hot in person as on screen? 

DB: Besides saying the following two phrases to Matt Damon while working as an AD on the Goa schedule of The Bourne Supremacy i.e. – “Welcome to India, your car will be here shortly” and “I will pick you up at 10 a.m. tomorrow”, I really didn’t get any one on one interaction with him! I did almost pee my pants while saying those two things to him though!

But yes, as hot in person as on screen – not only for his physical appearance but also because the man has no star hang ups. He is extremely modest, humble and even willing to help the production assistant clear traffic cones off the blocked street for the shot. And him playing water polo in the hotel pool during an off day – that was nice to watch!

Devika Bhagat’s next release is the highly anticipated Aisha, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, starring Sonam Kapoor and Abhay Deol. 


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